Understanding Catalonia’s demand for azadi

Understanding Catalonia’s demand for azadi

Few people in India and in Kashmir are aware that Europe is culturally and economically diverse. People may know about the existence of a range of state languages, different religions and cultural practices. But few understand how Europeans think and organise this diversity through their institutions.

The referendum organised by the Catalonian government on 1 October 2017 to decide on the independence of this Spanish autonomous community has drawn attention to the existence of movements seeking a separate statehood at the heart of Europe. Interestingly, except for the specific war context in the Balkans that ended with the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and the rare case of mutual agreement to dissolve the former Czechoslovakian Republic and the formation of two different states in 1993 (Czech Republic and Slovakia), the European Union has generally turned a blind eye to such demands.

The EU member states have normally stuck to the principle of state sovereignty and haven’t interfered in the domestic affairs of the other states in respect of the existence of movements for independence. This principle, however, crashes with the very foundations of the European project and its aspirations to create a more cooperative and just space based on equality and solidarity. Instead of a United States of Europe many have proposed a Europe of Regions, in order to foster decentralisation and favour representation at the local and regional levels. The reality, however, is that the European project has so far proven incapable of attaining these aims.

A demonstration for Catalonian independence in Spain in 2017
Photo Courtesy: EU Observer

The current crisis in Catalonia and the reaction of EU institutions in unequivocally supporting the stance of the Spanish conservative government represents a continuation of this inward-looking policy of not addressing the political problem of a more ambitious project for Europe.

The background of the Catalonian nationalism to a reader of Kashmir Narrator

Few people in India and in Kashmir are aware that Europe is culturally and economically diverse. People may know about the existence of a range of state languages, different religions and cultural practices. But few understand how Europeans think and organise this diversity through their institutions. From my own experience years ago, as a Galician student from Spain studying in New Delhi, it was interesting to see how my fellow Indian students at the JNU could identify Spain on the map but related the country to certain stereotypes (bull-fighting, flamenco and paella) and distinguished Madrid from Barcelona only because of the famous football teams, and saw Granada as a beautiful city because of their seeing the Alhambra as a Spanish ‘Taj Mahal’. But this unfortunately hasn’t changed, although now many Indians travel to Spain and visit various places. Nor does the average South Asian know that in Spain, along with castellano (Spanish), there are other three co-official languages such as Galician, Basque and Catalan or that the Spanish Constitution provides a degree of autonomy to the various territories by officially, at least on paper, preserving their historic specificities.

However, the same applies to the uninformed views that Spanish people have on India, and more specifically on Kashmir, its social and cultural diversity, the roots of the Kashmir conflict and the wish to have a better future. The reality is that most people don’t know about the contexts of other regions and despite the fact that globalisation and the internet have brought distant territories closer to each other, it isn’t always easy to explain or adequately understand ongoing political issues. The demand for independence in Catalonia has its own specific context and it is this context that needs to be explained.

The Spanish state, national identity and the question of diversity

Spain, along with Portugal, shares the sad record of being one of the European states in which fascism survived well beyond the Second World War, until mid-1970s. However, unlike Portugal, which defeated the dictatorship in a bloodless coup d’état supported by a popular uprising, in Spain the dictator Francisco Franco “died in his bed, peacefully” on 20 November 1975. The re-introduction of the Bourbon monarchy was meant to guarantee the continuity of the regime, although later the king and some liberal forces opted to manoeuvre a smooth transition to democracy, including the legalisation of all political parties.

During the forty-two years since Franco’s death, Spain has enjoyed a long period of peace and relative prosperity. The state, however, has been unable to address its darkest legacies, starting from public condemnation of Franco’s dictatorship to the problem of addressing its imperialistic record of genocide in the Americas and the expulsion of the Spanish Jews and Muslims from the peninsula. An ordinary Kashmiri or Indian reader of this magazine would immediately ask why these things of the past play a role in explaining the Catalonian crisis. The answer is because this historical heritage is bound up with Spanish nationalism and its way of addressing difference.

Under the Constitution of 1978, the Spanish regions were granted a degree of autonomy in a law passed by the absolute majority of the House of Deputies (the Lower House). These so-called Statutes of Autonomy became the main legal instruments for the development of the different Autonomous Communities which distinguished between historical nationalities—regions with their own language and distinct historic traditions such as Galicia, the Basque Country and Catalonia—and the rest of the country. This territorial configuration has conveyed the idea that Spain is a very decentralised state, but the reality is that it is far from being a federal state since it lacks proper federal institutions such as those existing, for example, in Germany. This has practical implications at the level of basic rights as exemplified in the case of co-official languages, which aren’t on an equal footing with Spanish in their own territories.

Moreover, attempts by various regional governments and local municipalities to address social inequalities derived from the economic crisis that has hit Spain since 2008 have often clashed with the liberalisation policies of the central government, led by the conservative party of Mariano Rajoy since 2011. Thus, on the one hand, there is a problem of the political articulation of the state and, on the other there is the question of the growing authoritarianism of the Spanish state.

A pro-plebiscite demonstration in Kashmir in the ’50s
Photo: Kashmir Research Centre

The Catalan question: el procés (the process)

The Spanish democratic system allows political parties demanding independence for their respective territories to defend their ideas through democratic institutions, but it doesn’t allow for these demands to become effective. The Spanish Constitution doesn’t foresee the possibility that a territory can hold a plebiscite for self-determination, as took place in the case of Scotland in the UK, nor would the main Spanish political parties (the People’s Party and the Socialist Party) allow this to happen. This is important for understanding the Catalan question because, from a legal point of view, the Catalan government broke Spanish law by calling Catalans to a plebiscite on independence on 1 October. However, from the perspective of the Catalan government, a combination of conservative and progressive forces, the call for a plebiscite was a political act, part of a revolutionary movement to achieve independence. So far, the Spanish government has addressed the Catalan question as a legal issue, allowing the courts to proceed against those who broke the law and by suspending, for the first time under the present Constitution, a region’s autonomy. At the time of writing this article, the situation remains tense, with a new call for elections on 21 December and the hope that things will “return to normal.” However, given the current context, it is quite impossible that this will occur.

What has triggered the present context? Catalonia’s movement for independence has a long history but it has always been a minority movement, split along class divides. Indeed, Catalonia’s political map reflects a pluralism ranging from moderate autonomists, what in Kashmir would be similar to the National Conference, to radical feminist leftist parties such as the Popular Unit Candidacy or CUP. There is also a divide between the Spanish mainstream parties and those demanding self-determination. Moreover, the Spanish ruling conservative People’s Party and its supporter Ciudadanos offer a more radicalised political discourse in Catalonia, with xenophobic overtones against migrants. The latter contrasts with the discourse of the nationalist parties, which over decades have moved from an identitarian nationalism to a more inclusive concept of Catalonian society which embraces descendants of migrant origin.

Furthermore, Catalonia is one of the richest regions of Spain, and one of the most industrialised areas, thus attracting waves of poor migrants from other parts of Spain during the twentieth century and, more recently, from other countries. The Catalonian educational system has played a huge role in favouring the integration of the children from these migrant communities. Thus, Catalonian society is very heterogeneous but with a strong sense of belonging.

Until 2004, the moderate nationalists and the Catalonian federal branch of the Spanish Socialist Party dominated the political scene. But the situation changed after the Statute of Autonomy reform proposal, the main law for ruling the autonomous communities. When the socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero came to power in Madrid, a window was opened allowing the different autonomous communities to reform their laws, since over the years the regional governments had been demanding more self-government derived from ongoing transformations at the European and global level. The Catalonian government proposed a new Statute of Autonomy, which had gained popular endorsement through elections and which was also endorsed by the Spanish House of Deputies. However, the People’s Party led by Mariano Rajoy objected the Statute insisting it would give an exceptional autonomy to Catalonia and was against the Constitution. The Party mobilised anti-Catalonian populist sentiments in Spain by collecting signatures and took the matter to the Constitutional Court, which declared parts of the Statute unconstitutional. A legal text which had been widely supported then became the bone of contention and the origin of the present situation. The Statute alienated Catalans against “Spanish intrusion” in their self-government and also mobilised popular sentiments in Spain on what was perceived as a privilege for the Catalans.

The Catalan question evolved in a context of serious economic crisis, in which the Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy applied austerity measures that severely affected the weakest sections of Spanish society. Regional and municipal governments trying to implement social policies to reduce poverty and social exclusion were tied by guidelines directed from Madrid. In the midst of the economic crisis and increasing social inequalities, major corruption scandals affecting some of the Spanish elites and the ruling party became public and created further public discontent. Corruption is a widespread phenomenon in Spain, but also has affected the political elites in Catalonia. Following the deadlock caused by the Statute, Catalonia has been demanding greater financial autonomy in order to address its social and economic needs but the Spanish government has denied this possibility. As a result, the Catalonian leaders decided to advance toward independence unilaterally as a way to better rule themselves without impositions from Madrid. The call for the referendum on October 1 is the consequence of these developments.

On 1 October, more than two million Catalans went into the streets, defying orders from Madrid, in order to cast their vote (yes or no to independence) as a form of protest. The Spanish government had declared the referendum illegal. The event became one of the biggest peaceful mobilisations in Spanish history, despite the violence exercised by the Spanish police forces, which were deployed in Catalonia expressly for the purpose of disrupting the process. The much-respected mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, herself not supporting independence, participated in the process so as to support the people’s right to decide their political future. Yet the referendum revealed a paradox of democracy: while people wanted to cast their vote to decide the future, the democratic state was preventing them from doing so. Police violence to voters, including sexual harassment to women, evidenced a dangerous trend in the so-called security forces of the Western European democracies.

After the elections, the Catalan government made the results public, although they couldn’t be considered official due to bureaucratic problems (such as lacking a proper census) and the violent context in which they took place. However, 2.26 million Catalans (out of an estimated voting population of some 5.5 million) cast their votes, of which 90% were in support of independence, 8% against and the rest of the ballots were blank or void. Given the circumstances and the fact that mainstream Spanish political parties asked voters not to participate in the referendum, the mobilisation of more than two million people (the voter turnout was calculated to be between 36% and 43%, depending on the sources) is remarkable. Indeed, more than anything else, the referendum of 1 October showed the maturity of a society willing to assert their political future in the face of a state which considers democracy as the routine of electoral processes in which two main parties alternate in power.

The Catalan government used the referendum as a tool to negotiate a deal with the Spanish government and mediators tried to find a solution between Madrid and Barcelona. Apparently, the Spanish government denied any dialogue and requested the Catalonian government to step down and call for fresh elections. In response, on October 27 the Catalonian Parliament voted independence by a simple majority— the political opposition abandoned Parliament. The Spanish government reacted by invoking article 155 of the Constitution, which automatically dismissed the Catalonian government and Parliament, and called for elections on 21 December. Article 155 is an emergency law but its scope is unclear, as it has never been invoked before.

However, the Attorney General, a figure questioned for his proximity to the government, has used this context to prosecute members of the Catalonian government, the President of the Parliament and leaders of the two main social movements supporting independence. Except for those members of the government who fled to Brussels, including the President Carles Puigdemont, and the President of the Parliament (who spent a night in jail and is on bail), all of them are at present in jail facing charges of rebellion. The latter is of special interest because “rebellion” implies a violent act, which hasn’t occurred. If anything has characterised the Catalonian movement for independence, this has been its peaceful and civic character. In this respect, the coming elections in December will probably not alter the present scenario marked by sharp divisions between the Catalonian nationalist and the Spanish political forces.

The Catalonian problem is political and demands a political solution. Several voices have argued in favour of reforming the Constitution in order to make Spain a truly federal state, as this could better accommodate nationalist sentiments. The problem is that the constitutional reform will open up the debate on the continuity of the monarchy and will touch upon sensitive issues connected with Spain’s Franco’s heritage, which are at the root of Spanish nationalism. Catalonians have taught, through their peaceful demonstrations, that demands for a more representative and equal society are possible and the intimidation instigated by the Spanish state shows how authoritarianism is gradually becoming the common way of dealing with dissent.

—Dr Antía Mato Bouzas is a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient

The piece appeared in January issue of Kashmir Narrator. For subscribing to hard copy, contact [email protected] for details

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    By: Antía Mato Bouzas

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